A model of efficiency: the German workweek

November 2, 2021

german workweek

In Germany, work-life balance has been receiving attention in both political and business circles. This is why Germany has one of the shortest average workweeks in all of Europe: 34.2 hours worked per week

And there are advocates for it to be decreased even further.

For companies looking to expand to and operate in Germany, it’s crucial that you understand German employment laws and attitudes regarding the ideal work schedule.

Germany’s workweek

In German culture, quantity is not better than quality.

Germans pride themselves on efficiency, whether it’s their work output or automobiles. Unlike some work cultures, being in the office all day is not preferable. Instead, they’d rather get in, complete their duties, and then return to their homes and families as soon as possible. Now that remote work has become so prevalent, the push toward a more efficient workday is even stronger. 

Under the Working Hours Act (“Arbeitszeitgesetz”) there’s a minimum on the number of hours workers can engage in. It caps the average workday at eight hours, with no work allowed on Sunday. In some cases, Germans may legally work up to 10 hours in a day. But the average workday can’t exceed eight hours over a six-month period. 

German employees typically work 34.2 hours per week. Additionally, during the standard workweek—defined as Monday through Saturday—a German employee’s work hours may not legally exceed 48 hours. 

Along these lines, German labor laws require that employees receive plenty of respites so that they can recharge. For instance: 

Employees may not work for more than six consecutive hours without a break.

  • If the workday is between six to nine hours, they must receive at least one 30-minute break, or two 15-minute breaks.
  • If the workday exceeds nine hours, they must be given a 45-minute break, which could be split into periods of at least 15 minutes per break. 

Upon completing their daily work, employees must be provided at least 11 hours of uninterrupted rest. Should this rest period be interrupted, even briefly, it must then be granted in full after the pause. 

German employees are not entitled to take additional smoke breaks. Though, they can use their regular break for that time.

Opening hours 

In Germany, shops and businesses do not have the ability to stipulate their hours of operation. That means both opening and closing times are subject to German labor regulations.

Federal Shop Closing Laws (“Ladenschlussgesetz”) combined with other regulations in various German states determine hours. Thanks to these rules, German countries have the most limited shopping hours in Europe. According to the Germany Way

Throughout history, Germany had restricted shopping hours to comply with the country’s labor regulations. Since 2016, further laws have been passed stating that each of Germany’s 16 states, “Bundesländer,” may now regulate their own shopping hours. States that don’t pass their own are then subject to federal law. Only two states, Bavaria and Saarland opted for that route.  ​​

National holidays 

In Germany, holidays are always observed on the actual day, so even if the holiday is on a weekend, it won’t be moved to the nearest workday. Also, workers don’t receive extra compensation for a holiday that occurs on a non-workday.

According to Practical Law, employees are entitled to a holiday pay (some sort of continued payment of the salary) for the minimum statutory annual holiday entitlement, which is calculated on the basis of the employee's average salary (including variable remunerations) in the 13 weeks prior to the holiday.

On Sundays and holidays, the majority of businesses and shops are closed. Typically, the only exceptions are for public transportation and restaurants. Therefore, if German employees are expected to work on a public holiday that occurs on a working day, they must then receive a day of rest in compensation. This must be granted within eight weeks after that holiday. 

So, what holidays do Germans observe?

  • New Year   
  • Epiphany                  
  • Good Friday          
  • Easter Monday
  • Labor Day
  • Ascension
  • Whit Monday
  • Corpus Christi
  • Assumption Day
  • Day of German Unity
  • Reformation Day
  • All Saints’ Day
  • Penance Day
  • Christmas
  • St. Stephen’s Day

Overtime laws 

Although overtime isn’t common practice in Germany (it’s not even statutory), it can be a requirement of employment. However, it must be stipulated as a provision in the employment agreement or added to a collective bargaining agreement. That said:

  • For regular employees, overtime won’t be compensated via regular remuneration, but it is possible to agree to work 10% to 20% overtime in a contract with regular remuneration. 
  • For managing directors and board members, overtime worked is priced into salary. 

Typically, overtime is only expected to be compensated if it occurs regularly and is necessary to fulfill the workload given to the employee. In some cases, overtime may be compensated by granting additional vacation days.  

German work culture

There are three aspects of German culture that have shaped their work practices and regulations:

Focus on efficiency. Post-war Germany rebuilding efforts ushered in a sense of collective purpose, where every German citizen must do their part. In the workplace, this means no slacking off. German writer Anouk Renouval explains it well

Strategic decisions are made collectively, not just because the group takes precedence over the individual, but also to set realistic objectives and deadlines that can be met. Because of this, employees feel invested in what they’re doing and don’t need to spend countless hours at the office. Lunch breaks are short and coffee breaks are rare.

Focus on the work-life balance and the family unit. Family is everything in Germany. As a result, work relationships are an uncommon practice since they take up precious time that could be spent outside of the office. Finishing tasks promptly means spending more time with friends and family, which is another reason to be efficient at work. 

An emphasis on hierarchy and collaboration. Although Germans respect hierarchy, there’s a more symbiotic relationship within companies than you’d see in other countries. Managers are thought of more as guides than bosses. It’s their job to champion their employees and guide them toward the end goal.  

Acclimating to German work culture 

For international employers looking to hire in German, it’s vital that you embrace the German business culture that places an emphasis on productivity and efficiency. 

Partnering with a global employment provider, especially one with in-country HR experts to guide you, can help you acclimate to the German work culture. Additionally, with a Germany employer of record, you can be confident that when you hire in Germany, you do so compliantly.

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